Acquisitions Blotter: Beckett Books

Samuel Barclay Beckett (13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989) was an Irish avant-garde writer, dramatist and poet, writing in English and French.

Samuel Barclay Beckett (13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989) was an Irish avant-garde writer, dramatist and poet, writing in English and French.

Samuel Beckett, despite his desire for personal privacy, deeply concerned himself with his public reception through the publishing of his works and the production of his plays.  The Beckett manuscript collections at the Burns Library contain rich resources for examining Beckett’s involvement with the public reception of his work.  The correspondence between Beckett and American producer Alan Schneider, which has since been edited by Maurice Harmon and published as No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider (Harvard University Press, 1998), demonstrates the care and anxieties of the playwright preparing his work for an audience.  For instance, in a letter on 29 December 1957, Beckett, in speaking about his reluctance to provide exegeses (“That’s for those bastards of critics”) for his works, famously remarks,

Letter from S. Beckett to A. Schneider, 29 December 1957, Box 1, Folder 3, MS1994-34, Alan Schneider-Samuel Beckett Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Letter from S. Beckett to A. Schneider, 29 December 1957, Box 1, Folder 3, Alan Schneider-Samuel Beckett Collection, MS.1994.034, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

“My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended), made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else.  If people want to have headaches among the overtones let them.  And provide their own aspirin.  Hamm as stated, and Clov as stated, together as stated, nec tecum nec sine te, in such a place, and in such a world, that’s all I can manage, more than I could.”(Box 1, Folder 3, Alan Schneider-Samuel Beckett Collection, MS.1994.034, John J. Burns Library, Boston College)

However, this is only one aspect of Beckett’s concern for the reception of his work.  Finding a place for his work on the printed page was a constant struggle in his early years.  For instance, in a letter to Thomas McGreevy of 18 August 1932, Beckett gives an account of his failed attempts at finding a publisher for his first novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women:

“This month of creeping and crawling and sollicitation has yielded nothing but glib Cockney regrets.  The book came back from the Hogarth Press, and the poems, with merely the formal rejection slip.  Nothing from L.W.  He was out of London as I told you when I brought it round.  I have good reason to believe that the MS never left London and that in all probability he never saw it.  But he must have got my letter.  Or perhaps it is his turn for the asylum.  Anyhow tant piss.  I then brought it to Grayson and Cape.  It came back yesterday from Cape.  Their reader’s report “did not encourage them to make me an offer for publication rights.” (The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I, Cambridge 2009)

Title page of Echo's Bones, by Samuel Beckett, this book is available for your perusal in the Burns Library Reading Room, Call #  PR6003.E282 E25 1935a.

Title page of Echo’s Bones, by Samuel Beckett, this book is available for your perusal in the Burns Library Reading Room, PR6003.E282 E25 1935a Beckett.

This is only the beginning of a much longer narrative of literary rejection and abuse directed at a multitude of publishing firms.  When holding a book in our hands, we are seldom reminded of the story behind it.  Every book has its own story that begins before pen ever touches paper and lives on into the present.  A new acquisition of Beckett’s published materials, which has recently been added to the Burn Library’s collections, is full of these sorts of stories.  For instance, we acquired a first edition of Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates (1935) published by the Europa Press, a small avant-garde press operating from Paris and London.  George Reavey, Irish poet and editor, founded the press out of frustration with English publisher’s reluctance to take on the experimental poetry being produced by Reavey and his cohorts.  Echo’s Bones was last in a series of three volumes designated as the Europa Poets, which included Reavey’s Nostradam (1935) and Signes d’Adieu (1935).  These were the first and last volumes to be printed in Paris because shortly thereafter Reavey moved the press to London due to an increased interest in his translations and the Anglo-phone poetry he was publishing at the time.  Although the other volumes in the Europa Poets series contain wonderful illustrations from illustrators and engravers working in the Atelier 17 in Paris, Beckett refused to allow any illustration to accompany his verse (James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett,1996).  Consequently, Echo’s Bones has a visual austerity commensurate with “solitary caves and dark abodes” where

Her bones are petrify’d, her voice is found
In vaults, where still it doubles ev’ry sound. (Ovid, “The Transformation of Echo”, Metamorphoses)

Colphon from Echo's Bones by Samuel Beckett, 1935.

Colphon from Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett, 1935.

The book was printed in a limited edition of 327 copies printed by the G.L.M. Press in Paris.  The copy now at the Burns Library is one of presumably twenty-seven “out of series” copies not numbered and on Alfa paper without an H.C. designation, signed by Beckett on the title page. Echo’s Bones includes the poems rejected by Leonard Woolf and others, and the slim volume embodies Beckett’s struggle and eventual success in finding a printed home for his poetry.  It is available for viewing along with the rest of the Beckett manuscript and book collections at the Burns Library.  Please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu if you have questions about doing research with any of these materials.

  • Andrew Kuhn, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English,andrew.kuhn@bc.edu

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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